You don’t expect people in their twenties to die from alcoholism, so when Emily died a lot of our friends gave up the booze…temporarily. You also don’t expect people who have died to come back, so when Emily visited me after she’d died, and over the next five years refused to leave me alone, I had to take action. Emily had been my best friend. As children we lived just round the corner from each other, we first met at nursery school and even though we ended up going to different secondary schools, we still hung out several times a week and spent most weekends together.
It was when we first started going to our local pub, aged about sixteen, that I began to think Emily had a problem. A couple of drinks were never enough for her. She told me to lighten up, let my hair down, getting pissed was a rite of passage. So many nights we had to take her back in a state to our friend Kevin’s house before daring to take her to mine. Kev’s parents didn’t have a problem with underage drinking, his parents rarely cared what Kevin did, and once Em had sobered up enough, we’d stagger back to mine, via our favourite late-night kebab shop for chips in pitta, then grunt at my father, who would by then be snoring in the chair in front of the telly.
In the two years while we did our A-Levels, this happened almost every weekend. Even when we were under a curfew, supposedly revising for exams, she would smuggle a half bottle of vodka into my bedroom, and I’d maybe have a couple of small glasses mixed with fruit juice before she’d finish the rest. I don’t know how she managed to get the grades to go to the university she’d chosen, but she did. I was supposed to apply for the same uni, City, but by then I needed a break from her. I put Bristol as my first choice and City second, and was astounded that I got good enough grades in Geography and French to leave Emily behind in London. She could have stayed at home with her parents to save money, but she chose to move out the six miles from her home in Finsbury Park and live in halls of residence in Islington.
When she dropped out in her second year, it wasn’t a surprise. Her parents were very disappointed, and my parents just as. Emily had come to them to get my phone number in Bristol, she had lost her phone somewhere and wanted to come and see me. My parents tried to get her to go back home and talk to Maya and Henry about it, but she was planning on hitching down to Bristol, something we all did in our student days.
What was a surprise was that although just two hours before my parents had phoned to tell me she’d been killed in an accident on the way to visit me, she turned up at my front door.
I was still crying when I opened the door. She looked pale, but apart from that perfectly normal. She was the one who made me a cup of tea, then asked me if I had anything stronger in the house I shared with three other students. I found some rum.
‘Your mum said I was dead? That’s sick,’ she said.
‘They said the lorry hit the central reservation. The driver was okay, but you were killed in the impact. This is weird, Em, why would your parents say that to mine?’
‘I don’t remember,’ she said. She looked vague, a bit like she did sometimes when she’d have the first one too many. I got goosebumps all up my arms.
She had another drink. ‘Is your rum off? This stuff isn’t making a dent.’
‘Rum doesn’t go off, you’re probably in shock. Do you want to phone your parents, let them know you’re all right?’
‘It’s late, I’ll call tomorrow. Can I sleep here tonight?’
‘Of course you can, Davina’s away for the weekend, you can stay in her room.’
About three a.m. we went to bed. The next morning, Louise was in the kitchen making tea. She asked if I wanted one.
‘Thanks, my friend stayed last night, I’ll go and see if she’s awake. She takes it black.’
I knocked on Davina’s door. No response. I knocked again. Still no response. I opened the door, worried in case Emily might have been injured in the crash after all. She wasn’t there. The bed was neatly made, as if nobody had slept in it. I went back to the kitchen. There was an empty bottle of rum on the table and two glasses.
‘She’s gone,’ I said to Lou.
‘Maybe she’s gone to get something from the shop.’ Louise shrugged.
‘But without telling me?’
‘Maybe she went home?’
‘That must be it. She’s phoned her parents, they were overjoyed that it was a mistake, and she’s gone home and forgot to leave me a note.’
There was no point in trying to phone Emily as she had lost her mobile. I took my tea, went back to my room and got out the notes I’d made on Les Revenents (the film, not the TV show), which I had to do a review of for my French homework.
Next time my mum phoned, she asked what day was I coming back for Emily’s funeral and did I want dad to meet me at Paddington?
‘Very funny, Mum,’ I said.
‘I thought you’d want to go to the funeral with us, but if you prefer to go with Kevin—’
‘Mum, joke’s over. And it’s stopped being funny.’
At this, my mum started crying and asked me why I was being like his. She appreciated I’d lost my best friend, but she’d known Emily since she was a toddler and I had to realise she was upset too.
I said, ‘But she’s not dead, there was a mistake, I saw her last week. She told me about the crash, but she was okay. We had a few drinks and she slept in one of my flatmates’ rooms.’
‘You must have imagined it,’ she replied. ‘I saw her parents earlier. They asked if you’d like to do a reading at the service. Were you drinking after you heard about it? You must have had a dream, darling. She’s gone. Now what day are you coming back?’
I hung up and phoned Kevin. He confirmed that Emily was dead.
I told him she couldn’t be. That I’d seen her.
He told me he’d read about things like this. Messages left on answer machines hours after the person phoning had died; pets that wagged their tails in greeting to invisible deceased owners; spirits visiting for one last conversation. He said we should do a ouija board after the funeral as I was clearly in tune with Emily’s ghost.
I phoned my mum back to apologise for putting the phone down on her, and to find out about the arrangements for the funeral.
I suppose it must have been a grief-stricken, booze-fuelled dream. Never mind Kevin’s supernatural ideas, there was a logical explanation. That evening I went down the pub with Louise and had chips in pitta on the way home in memory of Emily.
We did the funeral and a small wake at Emily’s parents’ house, and after a couple of days I returned to Bristol and did rather well in my degree. I won’t say I didn’t think of her every now and then, but the initial shock of her death and the lack of my childhood friend and drinking companion faded as other things happened in my life.
I had given up drinking after the night of my strange hallucination, and I didn’t really miss it. I felt a smug superiority over my housemates who regularly drank until they passed out or threw up. And the extra hours I spent studying in the quiet house on Sunday mornings when everyone else was too hungover to get out of bed ’til lunchtime paid off in my grades. I met a boy, I fell in love, my heart was broken, then I met another boy, I moved back to London, and I got a flat and a job.
Kevin and I met up from time to time; his father had kicked him out when he found out Kev was gay, though how he’d missed that was quite incredible. Kev was now living near Saddlers Wells with an Australian barman. It was my twenty-second birthday. We had been for a mezze on Upper Street; Josh, my then-boyfriend, Kev and his boyfriend Dan, and a couple of friends from my job. I always thought about Emily on my birthday, missed her keenly. Dan and Kev invited us back to theirs, and we were listening to music and the boys were drinking cocktails made by Dan when the doorbell rang.
Kev said, ‘I wonder who that can be at this time.’
‘Only one way to find out,’ said Dan, and went downstairs to the front door. I could hear him talking to a female voice as he came back up the stairs.
‘She says she’s a friend of yours?’ Dan said as he stepped aside and revealed the pale figure standing behind.
I took Josh’s drink out of his hand and gulped it down.
‘I wanted to say happy birthday, I wanted to do it last year, but I didn’t know where you lived,’ said Emily.
‘Are you a ghost?’ whispered Kev.
‘You could call me that,’ said Emily, ‘though I’d really rather you just called me Em. Ooh, what’s that?’ she asked, pointing at the blue drink with a plastic flamingo in it.
‘It’s an invention of mine,’ Dan said. ‘I put a shot of everything in the house into it, then add some ice. I call it a “megadeath.” Oh. Sorry.’
‘Can I try?’ Emily took the drink out of Dan’s hand. ‘It’s not very strong is it?’
We sat with the ghost for several hours. Emily remained vague about her death and what had happened after. Kevin got over his initial shock quickly and asked her about the afterlife, though she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give us many details.
‘It’s all a blur,’ she said as she drank a glass of red wine. ‘I don’t know where they let me out of.’
‘Somebody lets you out?’ I asked.
‘I misspoke, I’m not supposed to say that,’ she whispered. ‘I just know that I’m not here all the time. Then it’s like I wake up. I often end up by my parents’ house, but this time I was on Upper Street, and I saw you. I followed you here. Happy birthday.’
‘I’ve really missed you, Emily,’ I said. ‘That time you can to visit me in Bristol, after the accident, were you dead then?’
‘I missed you too,’ she said, nodding.
We all went to bed very late that night. In the morning, as I’d half-expected, Emily was nowhere to be seen. My head was hammering, and I felt queasy; it was the first time I’d drunk alcohol since Emily’s death. We all went to a café and had a cooked breakfast. The boys were in some sort of odd denial about the thing that had happened the previous night. It was like they’d forgotten that she was ever there. They insisted on telling me they remembered nothing, blaming the strength of Dan’s famous megadeath cocktail on any memory loss.
‘But don’t you remember answering the door?’
‘Yes…sort of,’ said Dan. ‘She drank all our drink.’
But the slight memory that Dan had kept of her faded over the next hour. By the end of breakfast, they were telling me that my sick joke had gone too far, and even though it was my birthday weekend, I ought to stop it because the joke had ceased to be funny.
Emily would visit me over the next few years with an increasing regularity. No longer just confined to my birthday, she seemed to be finding more and more excuses to visit me and involve herself in my life. And each time it was only me who ever remembered her being there. I began to doubt my sanity. Maybe if I was the only person who could see this ghost, she didn’t actually exist. Maybe this was the expression of my grief at losing my closest, dearest childhood companion. But other people had seen her, even if they didn’t admit it. She had a tearful reunion with her parents, which of course, they didn’t remember the next day. Or they said they didn’t remember, and once again, I was sent away with their angry voices ringing in my ears, telling me I was sick to bring this up. Couldn’t I just let her rest in peace?
I tried to photograph her on my phone, but when I looked back though the gallery she was missing from the photos—it was just me taking a selfie. Emily was haunting me. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know what I’d done. The next time she visited, just after I’d split up with Josh, I determined to ask her.
I was crying in my kitchen. Emily had turned up in the garden and started knocking insistently on the back door. My head was on the kitchen table and my white kitten, Snowy, a last present from Josh, had jumped up and was nuzzling at my ear. Just before Emily knocked, Snowy went rigid and hissed, a long noise I’d never heard from him before. He leapt off the table and shot into the sitting room.
I looked up, half-expecting it would be Josh, that he had come to apologise and that we would once again fall into each other’s arms and it would all be okay. But it was Emily’s pale face pressed to the glass of the door. I let her in.
‘Have you got anything to drink?’ she asked. ‘Oh you’ve been crying. Not for me, I hope.’
‘Not everything in my life revolves around you.’
Emily was looking in the cupboard next to the sink for any alcohol.
‘There’s nothing in there, Em, Josh drank the last of it before he left.’
‘Oh, Josh isn’t here? I liked him.’
‘So did I.’
‘Is he coming back?’ She sat down on the seat where I’d been sitting moments before.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, and started crying again.
‘There, there,’ she said. ‘It’ll get better. Everything gets better. We could go on the pull if you want.’
I felt in my jeans pocket for tissues, but finding none, wiped my nose with my sleeve. ‘Emily, why are you haunting me?’ I finally asked.
‘I don’t know. Am I haunting you? Don’t you want me to come and visit you?’
‘No! Most people don’t commune with the dead!’ Emily looked hurt. ‘Emily, if you were alive, of course, I’d love you to be here. Of course you’d be involved in most aspects of my life…but you’re not. I can’t talk to anyone about you because they don’t remember you being there. People think I’m slightly mad, or that I’ve got a really cruel sense of humour. Your parents still won’t reply to my emails. I’m pretty sure it’s one of the reasons Josh split up with me.’
‘I’m sorry. You were the person that I remembered the strongest. I suppose that’s why I started to come and see you, and I don’t know how to go and see anyone else now.’
‘Who lets you out?’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘So it’s just a completely featureless place, this place where you go back to? And there’s nobody else there? But that second time you came, you said that somebody let you out. You said that you shouldn’t have said it. But you did say it.’
Emily looked vague, like she was about to tear up. ‘If I tell you, you might have to come there with me. It’s a secret place.’
I looked at Emily, the friend I’d known since I was three; I look around my flat in Crouch End, empty without Josh, and I started to think that it might not be so bad.
‘Would I be able to come back, like you do?’
‘I don’t know. I’m only allowed out because…I did a deal. If you wanted to do the same you’d have to do the same deal…but I don’t know if that would work. You’d have to become a sort of ambassador, like I am.’
‘Yes, that’s a way to describe it.’
Emily no longer looked unhappy; in fact, I thought I saw a glint in her eyes. In her cold, dead eyes.
‘I can take you back now, if you want. You can find out all about it for yourself.’
She’s holding a knife in her hands. I don’t think she was holding that before. I don’t know where she got it.
‘It’ll be quick, and after it doesn’t hurt. Nothing hurts anymore, that’s why the booze doesn’t taste of anything now. You won’t be sad…not about losing me, not about losing Josh…it’ll all be sort of…vague. I’ll look after all your stuff. I’ll look up Josh and tell him not to miss you. I can tell him all about you and me when we were kids.’
‘Hang on…what?’ The bread knife is in my hand.
‘I’m going to swap places with you. Good plan, yes? I did a deal. If I can get someone to take my place, I can come home as if I’d never been away.’
‘Why didn’t you stop me drinking? Why did you let me get like that? If you’d gone to City university with me, I would have stopped.’
The knife blade’s serrated edge looks sharp. It looks like it would easily slice through my skin, right through to the blue veins sitting so close beneath.
‘In fact, if a person had years to think about it, in a place where there really is nothing else to do but think, that person might think you abandoned me on purpose. That person might start thinking that you were responsible.’
‘I wasn’t responsible for your drinking.’
‘But you were my best friend. You should have said something.’
‘How could I have stopped you? It was up to you—’
‘Then I wouldn’t have dropped out. Then I wouldn’t have got into that lorry. I wouldn’t have shared the can of cheap lager that he handed me. I might have remembered to do my seatbelt up.’
I tentatively run my thumb along the edge of the knife, testing its sharpness, wondering how much it might hurt if I just push my thumb onto it a bit harder.
‘Do it,’ she hisses.
For the first time I feel like this is not Emily. If it ever was.
‘I was coming to see you. It’s your fault.’
The knife feels such a good weight in my hand. The handle and the blade are perfectly balanced together. I’ve nipped my fingers more than once cutting bread with it. It is a very sharp knife.
I see a white shape out of the corner of my eye. I feel a small furry shape bumping around my ankles. I look down and see Snowy. I don’t think Emily has seen him. Snowy leaps up onto my lap. I put down the knife. Snowy purrs as I ruffle his neck.
I look at her. She’s never touched me in all the time that she’s been visiting me. She’s never touched anyone as far as I can remember. I know that I’m not going to swap places with her. I know that I don’t want to be dead like her.
I pick up the knife. She smiles slyly. I think of all the good times that we had together when she was alive. I try to imagine that the knife contains all those memories, and that once this is done, her pain at not being here and my pain at missing my friend will all be gone.
‘Goodbye, Em,’ I whisper, as I stick the knife into the shape of her. It looks at me surprised and angry, and it shimmers for a second, but then it disappears. My kitten purrs. The knife blade is blackened. I wrap it in one of Emily’s old t-shirts that I still had at the back of my cupboard, and then I bury the knife in the garden, underneath a lilac bush.
The next day, when I’m putting flowers on Emily’s grave, I pour some whisky onto it. I don’t think she’ll be back again.
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© 2018 Sam Hall
Sam Hall is a playwright and short story writer. She is managing editor of Confluence Magazine.